Hungry For Perfect

Black Friday deals are already appearing in my inbox, stirring up my annual bout of holiday anxiety.

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My perfectionist tendencies seem to escalate this time of year. Just when I get them to calm down, a fresh barrage of media wakes them back up with gift ideas, picture perfect decorations, hurry-up-and-buy-it sales, and mouth-watering-must-make goodies for my family and the rest of my universe. That’s why I’m gearing up for this year’s battle.

That’s also why the title of Shauna Niequist’s new book, Present Over Perfect caught my eye. Her own struggle against perfectionism reached a fever pitch many Christmases ago and sent her on a quest for finding freedom from perfectionism by living in the present moment.

This is not a review of her book–I have only read an excerpt posted on her blog. But since her title resonated with my own struggles, I wanted to engage with her premise.

Tempted by the Perfect

Let’s face it, perfect is beautiful. It’s the beauty that snags us as we scroll through our blog feed or pop over to pinterest. We see the finished product, hear the easy-peasey, step-by-step process, and add another project to our already too long to do list. Why? Because perfect is not only beautiful, it will make me feel beautiful, too.

That’s the hook. If I can only make things perfect enough around me, it will somehow rub off on me. That’s the mantra of my personal idol of perfection. Perfect isn’t just what I want to have, it’s what I want to be.  And that’s what my false god promises if I’ll just try hard enough.  So I give myself more self-imposed tasks that eventually lead to another self-induced crisis.

Why can’t I just stop? Because my personal idol is reinforced by my culture’s idol of perfectionism, promising a kind of omni-competence to each of us f we’ll only take advantage of the tools they offer. After all, technology has given me 24/7 access to everything I need to make my world perfect. And media provides the pep talk: You can do it all! Have it all! There are no limits!

Pumped up now on pride and greed and promises, I push past my limits once again until the inevitable melt down.

The quest for perfect usually ends in a mess.

Living in the Present

During her Christmas scenario, Nieguist develops her own mantra, “Present Over Perfect.” Living in the present–the messy reality of the here and now–delivered a double benefit. Not only did it trump her quest for perfection, it positioned her to enjoy her real life–where unfinished projects leave space for laughter and unfolded piles of laundry give time for stories.

Her experiment lead to her determination to make the switch permanent rather than seasonal. Her book is a musing on that theme.

Reflecting on her theme, I want to propose three premises that spell out the advantage of living in the present:

  1. Living in the present is healthy–healthier than living in the past (with its regrets/shame/guilt) or the future (with its anxieties/expectations/idealism).
  2. Living in the present is messy–making it a helpful antidote for perfectionism.
  3. Living in the present is a mental mindset–a paradigm shift that I can initiate at my own volition.

Having enumerated the benefits of such a strategy, I began to wonder about the down side. On paper it sounds great, but will the very weaknesses I battle undermine my attempt to change? For example:

  1. How can I stay in the present when the past and the future call me back into regret or fear?
  2. How can I keep perfectionism from sneaking in the back door so that I begin to make my present, well, perfect.
  3. How can I sustain the mental mindset against the undercurrents of my heart?

If I’m hungry and weary, how can I be the one that gives me food and rest?

Learning from the Lowly One

The voice inside my head tells me you can do this, but the voice inside my head isn’t always reliable. One minute it tells me to relax and enjoy the mess. The next minute it whispers, what’s wrong with me that I can’t do it all?

I need a voice from outside my head, a voice that is reliable and true, powerful and compelling. I need a voice from outside myself that frees me from myself. I need a voice that invites me to eat and rest:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

The voice of my Savior speaks an eternal word of invitation and promise. He speaks a powerful word that accomplishes its mission, always. He speaks a gracious word that asks no heroic effort from me, simply to come to him. This is–

  • the voice of the Present One, who came into my messy world so he could deliver me from the guilt of my past and the fear of my future
  • the voice of the Lowly One, who offers me his yoke as the antidote to my pride, which fuels my perfectionism
  • the voice of the Perfect One, who came to live the perfect life I want to live, and then hand it to me as a gift in exchange for all my sin-spoiled attempts

And the best part of it? That he says “Come to me.” I don’t have to handle this alone. I’m with him.

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